Confronting the Myths of Leadership
To be a Spark, you have to recognize yourself as a leader. Know the pathway to leadership development and commit yourself to it. You’re not chosen to be a leader. You choose to lead.
BECOMING A SPARK REQUIRES first recognizing that you, like anyone else, have the potential to be a leader. Unfortunately, however, many would-be leaders are held back by myths about who and what a leader is. You’re limiting your leadership potential if you buy into one or all of these three commonly held—but erroneous—notions of leadership:
Leaders are born.
Leaders trust their instincts.
A title makes you a leader.
The best way to challenge the myths around leadership is to follow the science and see where it leads us. You’ll realize quickly that leadership isn’t an exclusive designation reserved for the exceptional and privileged few. Being a Spark is an act of free will, and when you start to make the behavioral choices consistent with being a Spark, you will see what you can do (versus what you can’t do) in your environment.
LEADERS AREN’T BORN—THEY’RE MADE
The “made” leadership behaviors
are attainable by any committed person, in any environment. Spark qualities include being credible to others so that they trust you, holding yourself accountable to your challenges, making good decisions when you’re feeling pressure to act, expressing your confidence in clutch moments, and bringing a group of individuals together to form a full and cohesive team.
When you think about any of these Spark qualities, you start to realize that they represent ways in which you can consciously choose to behave. However, these choices are easier to understand than to carry out, because they require that you defy human nature.
LEADERS CHALLENGE THEIR INSTINCTS
Too often in business we hear the phrase “trust your instincts.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the best advice, because our instincts aren’t always consistent with Spark behavior. When we avoid conflict, overreact to bad news, or procrastinate on decisions, we’re acting on our instincts and not influencing our environment. We’re simply reacting, which puts us at a disadvantage.
The way to stop reacting and start responding like a Spark is to invoke higher-order cognitive processes to control your actions. What does this mean when it comes to leadership development? Get inside your head and start paying attention to your reactions to challenging situations. The two most important processes to take notice of are cognitive flexibility and cognitive discipline, which help you get off autopilot—where your basic instincts reside—and consciously respond to challenging situations in an inspiring, influential, and well-thought-out way.
IT’S YOUR CHOICE TO BE A LEADER
Many people think the only way to become a leader is to be a boss. But simply having a title has never, ever made anyone a leader. No one else can make or anoint you a leader. The only way to become a Spark is to make yourself into one. When you decide to become a Spark, you need to spend serious time reflecting on where you are on the leadership development continuum. What are your real strengths? What are your true weaknesses? This knowledge helps you recognize opportunities for your development.
One of the Marine Corps’ top leadership principles is: “Know yourself and seek self-improvement.” The Corps recognizes that its leaders are successful when they have real awareness of their talents and can put themselves in a position to leverage them. Leaders also need to be open to feedback that will allow them to shore up their weaknesses. A high level of candor between ourselves and others generates self-awareness.
The more self-aware we are as Sparks, the greater our ability to own our shortcomings and correct them before they affect others.
Your Character: The Congruence Between Values and Actions
Leading with your own values is the gateway to leading others. If you know who you are and what you stand for, you’re able to sit up straighter and be more self-assured. You begin to develop self-trust because you know how you’ll behave when challenged and know that you’ll be able to count on yourself when the chips are down. And if you can count on yourself, there’s no doubt that others can count on you too.
People who live their values exude a quiet confidence—they worry less about what others think and instead focus on being true to themselves. That shows up as an authenticity that’s refreshing to others. We grant followership to those people in our organizations we perceive as authentic—that is, the people who aren’t playing politics, who aren’t always trying to say the “right things” to whomever they’re talking to, who aren’t seeking popularity in exchange for their integrity.
And if you’re able to convey to others that it’s okay to be real, you can have a definite impact in your organization.
Follow these steps to begin understanding and expressing your values:
- Find a quiet place and dedicate time to reflecting on the values that are most important to you. Identify a list of your top five most important values.
- Assess your support network—the people you can rely on as you develop your Spark behaviors. Work to ensure that these people stay present in your life.
- Understand the circumstances in which you have tended to compromise your values. Work to manage your schedule so as to avoid these situations.
The Four Keys to Being Credible
Credibility is the foundation of your leadership style. It allows people to view you as dependable, trustworthy, and committed. Sparks who demonstrate the four keys to credibility can quickly generate trust among others.
To be a credible Spark, you have to commit yourself to the following four keys to credibility:
Understand the expectations others have for you—other people often have unspoken standards they’re measuring your performance against.
Mind your say-do gap—often we undermine our influence by not following through on the commitments we make.
Let others know what’s expected of them—by giving others a clear picture of what success looks like, you’re helping them contribute to the credibility of their team.
Have the courage to deliver performance-related feedback to others—when delivered effectively, feedback can be the most valuable thing you do for your colleagues.
Becoming an Accountable Leader
Sparks who demonstrate accountability resist the powerful human instinct to place blame elsewhere. They seek to identify how their own actions—or inactions—have contributed to the situations in which they find themselves.
To be an accountable Spark:
- Lead with accountability so that you’re modeling the behavior you expect from others.
- Seek to recognize and embrace problems. Don’t deny them, ignore them, or wait for them to come to you. The sooner you address problems, the sooner you achieve the results you’re looking for.
- Work to ensure that the teams you work on allow for mistakes. The best teams discuss problems openly and apply their learnings going forward.
Act with Intent: Make Decisions That Matter
By having a clear vision and making choices consistent with it, Sparks achieve the success they seek. They recognize that seemingly small choices today will have a big impact on the fulfillment they desire for their future.
To honor your future self by making decisions that are aligned with your values:
- Reconcile the disconnect between where you are now and where you want to be.
- Commit yourself to growth and seek out challenges that help you evolve as a Spark.
- Create a plan for the changes you seek so you can commit fully to your goals.
- Recognize that there are limits to your capacity—to prevent burnout you have to say no many times to leave room for a few valuable yeses.
Be of Service: Recognize and Meet Others’ Needs
Sparks are always aware of others’ needs and take action to meet them. This outward focus strengthens relationships and creates camaraderie and connection.
To demonstrate service-based leadership:
- Consistently be focused on understanding the needs of others and working hard to meet them. Service-based leadership isn’t a onetime event.
- Seek to serve first. Don’t make people have to ask you for support and assistance.
- Sometimes the simplest actions are all it takes to be of service to others.
- Don’t just think about serving others—do it. We often have good intentions that fall to the wayside because we can’t find time to serve others. Even five minutes a day is enough to have a positive impact on others.
Build Your Confidence
Your confidence level will determine the level of results you experience. Sparks don’t leave their confidence to chance. They consciously manage their internal thought process to achieve a level of steadiness as their sense of confidence rises.
Confidence is an emotion that Sparks can manage. To achieve a steady level of confidence:
- Recognize that insecurity can often accompany success. It’s critical to acknowledge how your talents directly connect to the successes you experience.
- Pay attention to what you tell yourself during moments when you feel pressure. Often, rewriting any negative internal dialogue can give you the confidence you need to get through a challenge.
- Surround yourself with truth-brokers. We need people in our lives who tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.
Developing consistency is a discipline that requires constant commitment. To build the habit of consistency:
- Assess your current state of readiness. Do you have the space to respond to whatever happens rather than merely react?
- Recognize your limits before your credibility and reputation suffer. You can do any thing, but you can’t do every thing and be successful.
- Having “less to do” makes you more available for what matters most—at work and in life.